2010-01-14 / Scene

Carmenére from Chile

Wine Scene

Dave Ethridge — Wine Columnist Dave Ethridge — Wine Columnist For almost 150 years it was thought that the ancient Bordeaux grape variety called Carmenére was extinct. It was wiped out in the 1860s when the wine scourge of a tiny white louse infected the roots of the great vinifera vines in Europe and because it had always been a cantankerous vine to grow, the Bordelais never replanted it as they did other varieties.

Little did anyone know that far off in the mountainous valleys of Chile a wine was being produced and called Merlot. Their distinctive bottlings of Merlot became a huge success in the 1970s and ’80s with worldwide acclaim.

What they didn’t know, until after the grape vines that produced this great wine was studied by a plant scientist, was that all along, what they had been calling Merlot was really Carmenére.

In 1994, Professor Jean-Michel Boursiquot confirmed the heritage of the Carmenére growing in Chile, and the Chilean Department of Agriculture officially recognized it as a distinct variety in 1998. Since then, winemakers in Chile have been sorting out their vineyards, separating the Carmenére from the Merlot with marvelous success.

Carmenére wine has a deep red color (carmin is the French word for crimson) and is rich in aromas of red fruits, berries and spices. In contrast to a wine like Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenére has much softer tannins and is gentler, more like the Merlot that they originally thought it to be.

The flavors are cherry and fruit, often with some degree of smokiness with herbal spices. Some Carmenére also suggest hints of dark chocolate, with scents of leather or tobacco. All in all, it is a huge red wine that packs a mouth-jolting experience and, therefore, needs an equally big and hearty accompaniment a big juicy steak, a comforting pot roast with all the trimmings, or the distinctive flavors of a well-prepared venison stew.

That the Carmenére grape variety survived all these years is a testamentto the generations of fine winemakers in Chile. The vines were shipped to

Chile in the 1850s as cuttings when many of the vineyards were first being established.

In contrast to the damp, inhospitable climate of the Bordeaux region of France, the mountain valleys of Chile are dry, almost desert-like, but of high enough altitude to provide cool evening breezes and sunny days. And, obviously, the Carmenére has thrived, even though they thought it was a clone of Merlot until the last 15 years. As one of the winemakers there explained, “Our Carmenére doesn’t like to get its feet wet.”

Several of the leading wineries, particularly in the Valle del Rapel region, not far from the capital city of Santiago, are now producing

Carmenére like the one featured here — the 2007 Terre Andina Reserva Carmenére which has received very high ratings in American wine publications and a 94 score from Robert Parker. And, it is priced under $15 a bottle, a real steal!

With the huge success of the Carmenére from Chile, other areas are now planting the grape variety. There are a few such plantings in California, some in the state of Washington, and some experimental plots in Australia. But for now, if you want the new rage in red wines, get a bottle of Carmenére from Chile.

Dave Ethridge is a nationally known wine writer, certified wine judge and the Director of the Lapeer Chapter of Tasters Guild

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